Ask the Writing Teacher

Ask the Writing Teacher: The Third Person

By posted at 6:00 am on February 3, 2015 3

imageDear Writing Teacher,
We met at the University of Tampa this past week and you gave me your email address in order to get book suggestions from you. I’m working on a young adult novel in close third person with a decent amount of world building involved in the narrative. I’ve found it difficult to find contemporary novels (and short stories) that aren’t written in first person so any suggestions you have, I would really appreciate.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Best Regards,
Tiffany

Dear Tiffany,

covercovercoverI have to admit that your question, initially, made me giggle. My in-house statistician hasn’t crunched the numbers yet (Nate Silver wasn’t available so I hired my dog, Omar Little, and, quite frankly, he sucks at the job), but I’m pretty sure the proportion of contemporary novels narrated in the third person is equal to those narrated in the first.  Or at least it feels that way. I have so many good third-person novels to recommend to you!  Stoner by John Williams. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Off Course by Michelle Huneven. The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

(I’m basically walking through my house, calling out titles. I could do it all day. The Fever by Megan Abbott!)

cover covercoverSome of these books limit themselves to one character’s consciousness, like Stoner or Off Course. Others, like The Vacationers and The Fever, shift between multiple characters from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene.  In these novels, the distance between the reader and the events of the narrator, or “the psychic distance” as John Gardner puts it, is fairly close. These narratives reflect what James Wood calls, in How Fiction Works, the free indirect style:

“As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.”

(If you haven’t read Wood’s book, you can read the first chapter here. And you can read Jonathan Russell Clark’s clever and helpful essay on close third here.)

The Thin Place is told in a more elevated, all-knowing third-person point of view that skips from one small town resident to the next, including a dog, which is fitting since the book is about the thin scrim between the cosmic and the mundane, and the connection between all things. Everything I Never Told You also shifts its third person perspective, between family members, and its narrator has more knowledge than anyone; the book’s first sentence, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet…” makes that clear, and it emphasizes just how little this family understands about itself. In both these novels, perspective reflects theme especially well.

If you’re trying for this more elevated perspective, I also suggest you read Edward P. Jones along with 19th-century masters like George Eliot. These writers alight on one perspective and then another and another, deftly providing access to a character’s most intimate motives in one passage only to gracefully move away to comment on the scene in the next. They drop Wisdom-with-a-capital-W and it’s great fun to read. (And write, I hope!) An omniscient third person narrator feels like a bodiless character who shapes our understanding of the narrative’s events.

One of my writing teachers declared on multiple occasions that the third person point of view was easier than the first person. I disagree; each is easy and difficult in different ways. The first person has always come more naturally to me. Its performative qualities are revealing; I discover who my character is via language use and voice tics, confession and truth-dodging.  Most importantly, there isn’t the elasticity of psychic distance that exists in the third person, which requires control and intention so that the reader doesn’t feel like she’s riding a narrative tilt-a-whirl. It’s disconcerting to be deep inside a character’s psyche and then, suddenly, to see him from afar. I bet many first drafts of third-person narrations struggle with finding the best distance from which to tell the story.

I recommend you decide what your novel’s psychic distance is, and stick to it. If you’re after a closer third person perspective, keep in mind Wood’s image of the narrative bending around the character’s mind so that the language and observations reflect and imply that particular consciousness. Also, avoid using “seeing” verbs; instead of, for instance, “She saw the cup on the table,” just say something like, “The cup was on the table.” Since it’s a close third person, you don’t need to tell the reader who is doing the seeing — that’s already implied. It’s also easy to forget the body when writing in third person (just as it’s easy to forget the external world when writing in first person). One way to lessen the psychic distance between reader and story is to include physical experience: not what others see of the narrator, but how it feels, internally, to be this self: how it feels to be tired, to be restless, to be nauseated, and so on. (One of my pet peeves as a reader is when we learn about the hair of a protagonist from a (supposedly) close third person narration; people have very specific relationships to their hair, and they don’t view it, can’t experience it, from afar. If you’re gonna talk about a character’s hair, make sure it expresses the experience of having said hair, rather than something like, “She ran a hand through her shoulder-length straight auburn hair…” which puts me outside the character and her experience. In that example, I’m looking at the character, rather than seeing the world with her.)

coverSince your novel requires world building, I also recommend you read the last story/chapter in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, “Pure Language,” which seamlessly depicts a future New York City and a music industry that caters to toddlers — or “pointers” as they’re known — from the third person perspective of a guy named Alex. As you read, mark the moments where Egan is providing the reader with expository information about the world. Where does Egan fit it in, and how? Perhaps more importantly, how do these passages reflect Alex’s psyche and and shape our understanding of him? For example, look at this passage, where he’s describing a woman he’s meeting for the first time:

Lulu was in her early twenties, a graduate student at Barnard and Bennie’s full-time assistant: a living embodiment of the new “handset employee”: paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent, though Lulu appeared to be ignoring a constant chatter of handset beeps and burps. The photos on her page had not done justice to the arresting, wide-eyed symmetry of her face, the radiant shine of her hair. She was “clean”: no piercings, tattoos, or scarifications. All the kids were now. And who could blame them, Alex thought, after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses?

I’m interested in how “handset employees” and “clean” are in quotation marks, which allows Egan to not only straight-up define these terms for the reader, but to show that Alex is apart from these communities. The phrasing of “All the kids” shows that Alex isn’t as young as Lulu. Overall, the description of her reveals that Alex is attracted to her — and also intimidated, I think. Egan could have left out the “Alex thought” in the last line — the sentence would still work without it — but its inclusion adds a few inches to the psychic distance, which perhaps gives Egan some flexibility of tone when describing this particular future.

coverPart of your quandary, of course, is that you’re writing a young adult novel, and I’m no longer giggling because, you’re right, there are far fewer third person examples in that genre. Why is that?  My friend Cecil Castellucci, who will publish her 12th (!) young adult novel, Stone in the Sky, in late February, has her own litmus test for categorizing a book as YA. Her definition sheds light on why so many are told in first person:

For me, a book is YA when it has a young protagonist and the action is happening right now or has just happened. If a book has a young protagonist, but it is nostalgic or self-aware, then it is an adult book.

Castellucci argues that a YA book feels like it’s happening “in the now,” and that this sense of urgency allows the reader to feel as if she’s “on the journey with the character as they clue in and grow.” The first person, and in particular the first person present, provides the kind of immediacy that the YA genre so excels at. In the third person, a sense of “nostalgia and awareness,” which Castellucci says is usually present in adult books with young protagonists, might creep in.

covercovercoverCastellucci says there are beautiful examples of third person YA books, so I asked my friend Katie Coyle, who recently published her first YA novel, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, for her suggestions.  She recommended Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress. The first two are examples of realism, the third is historical fiction, and Lo’s are fantasies.

Now that you have these recommendations, I suggest you ban the first person for at least six months. Read only novels written in the third person. Furthermore, try to read third person novels that have the same psychic distance you’re aiming for, be it close third, or an elevated omniscience, or something in between.

When I’m struggling with a technical challenge in writing, I bang my head against the wall, write and rewrite and write again, and seek out books that have mastered said challenge. It’s useful if the book’s content is wildly different from mine — that way, I don’t feel like I will accidentally crib its ideas. For instance, if you’re writing an epigrammatic novel about, say, the workplace, it would be helpful to read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell for its succinct and perfect short chapters. (See also: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.) You’ll be wise to avoid books that share your subject matter. It’s form you’re after, not content.

Aside from all that, I’d recommend writing, to yourself, your reasons for choosing the third person. Why does the story need to be told this way? It’s useful for me to articulate and defend my choices when I’m about halfway through a first draft.  This lets me move partly (but never wholly!) out of intuition and into intention. Intention feels powerful.

“Good luck, Tiffany!” she typed as she tucked her silky blonde hair behind her ear.

Sincerely,
The Writing Teacher





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3 Responses to “Ask the Writing Teacher: The Third Person”

  1. Weekend Java 02.06.15 | Scribblepreach
    at 5:10 am on February 6, 2015

    […] Should I Write in First or Third Person? – Some great advice on what it takes to do both. […]

  2. Sarah McCoy
    at 10:47 pm on February 17, 2015

    Tiffany–Eden is a prose powerhouse and an amazing teacher to boot.

    Eden– you just keep supernova-ing all over, friend. Brilliant recommendations for 3rd-person narratives. I cheered after every one. Looking forward to seeing you soon! We can have third-person dialogue over dinner: “The women ordered drinks. One with a red, organic chile pepper, one with a green. Then Sarah clinked glasses with Eden and said, ‘Here’s looking at you,’ and they laughed and feasted until their yoga pants were tight against their bellybuttons.”

    ;)

  3. Rita Foreman
    at 2:43 am on June 27, 2015

    This article validated and touched me on so many levels that I don’t know what to say. Perhaps it is the beer. This is definitely a do-over, and a save to my favorites. I already know that I’ll be plucking away at each sentence.

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